The New York Knicks are on such a hot streak that Coach Jeff Van Gundy has decided to take an unexpected gamble that could make or break his team's Cinderella run through the postseason.
Van Gundy will start Latrell Sprewell at small forward in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Power forward Kurt Thomas has been sent to the bench and Larry Johnson, whose miraculous four-point play in the waning seconds Saturday night gave the Knicks a 2-1 series lead, will move to power forward.
It is a change that will make the undersized Knicks, who lost Patrick Ewing (torn Achilles' tendon) for the rest of the postseason, even smaller. However, it also makes them more athletic, less predictable and far more dangerous in the transition game.
"Anything's a gamble right now," Van Gundy said. "But it's the way I think we can win this series."
Only six points have decided the first three games and every game has come down to the final seconds. So the outcome of the series between these heated rivals may not come down to who starts the game, but rather who finishes.
"They're down 2-1 so we expect them to be more physical, play harder and be more intense," said Knicks forward Marcus Camby, whose 21 points and 11 rebounds kept New York close enough for Johnson's Game 3 heroics. "We understand they're going to be ready. They could have easily had that win [Saturday]. We have to play better."
The eighth-seeded Knicks, just two victories away from being the lowest seed ever to play in the NBA Finals, have won nine playoff games with Sprewell coming off the bench. He has led the team in scoring this postseason in his reserve role, averaging more than 18 points.
In his four regular season starts, New York was 1-3. One of those starts came against the Pacers, a 108-95 loss in which he scored a team-high 20 points. So why the change?
"I wasn't expecting it," Sprewell said. "We're doing it probably because of matchups more than anything and to keep some of our big guys out of foul trouble."
Thomas and center Chris Dudley each had five fouls in Game 3, limiting them to a combined 41 minutes. The problem for New York was they collected their fouls when they were on the floor together. When both had to go to the bench, the Knicks' reserves were smaller and less physical than their counterparts.
Indiana took advantage of that edge as forwards Derrick McKey and Sam Perkins combined for 16 points and seven rebounds.
"We don't have the depth that we had now that Patrick is out," Sprewell said.
What may play into New York's favor, however, is that Sprewell and Allan Houston have flourished when on the court together. Both 6 feet 6, they have caused matchup problems for the shooting guards and forwards that have tried to defend them throughout the playoffs.
The fleet-footed Sprewell holds advantages in nearly every facet of the game over Pacers forward Chris Mullin, whose minutes could be reduced in favor of struggling swingman Jalen Rose. Houston has averaged more than 16 points a game and has hounded Indiana guard Reggie Miller, who failed to score in the final 16 minutes of Game 3.
The Pacers have a distinct edge at center with 7-4 Rik Smits, who had his best game of the series Saturday night, scoring 25 points -- 15 in a row in the second quarter.
Even so, the Knicks dominated the boards, 40 to 31, and outscored the Pacers 50-26 inside. Both edges were largely due to a strong game from Camby, who started the second half for the first time in the series. Now his confidence is soaring.
Pacers Coach Larry Bird said his team must find a way to neutralize the energetic Camby, whose transition play at both ends has posed problems.
"It's who wants to go out there and battle and pull out those tough rebounds and things," Camby said. "I can play better. If I get out there and get more minutes I can keep producing. I have to go out and fight just as hard -- if not harder -- [in Game 4] because so much is at stake."